Written by J. Bennett Guess
April - May 2008
At 8:15 a.m. on Feb. 12, 15-year-old Lawrence King was shot twice in the head while sitting in the computer lab at his junior high school in Oxnard, Calif.
The reason? He was gay. But, more so, he refused to be ashamed of himself.
The heinous crime was committed by a fellow student, 14-year-old Brandon McInterney, whom King had confessed to liking. Homophobia, once again, was claiming and ruining two lives - and impacting countless more.
King's murder received quite a bit of attention in the gay media, thanks to persistent activists who refused to let King's story be buried with him. Yet, there was barely a mention in the mainstream press.
It's another pointed example of the chronic problem of youth-on-youth anti-gay violence. In addition to verbal and physical assaults, homicide is also on the increase. As many as 59 young people have been murdered since 1995 because of gender-noncomformity, one count shows.
And yet, because so many school systems are afraid or restricted from addressing so-called "gay issues," students are often forced to take the hallway harassment, the lunchroom abuse, the after-class beatings - with no one to turn to. Several states have given lip service to bullying - including my home state of Kentucky earlier this year - but have excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students from proposed legislation to address the problem.
It's no wonder that LGBT students are five times more likely to skip school out of fear for their personal safety, according to a study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
According to the 2006-released report - the first time the pervasive problem had ever been studied in any depth - more than 75 percent of students reported hearing strong, derogatory, anti-gay remarks, such as "faggot" or "dyke," on a daily or frequent basis. Over a third of students had experienced physical harassment based on their perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender expression, and one out of five students reported being physically assaulted because of it.
If you don't believe the frequency, just ask your children or grandchildren how the gay kids at their schools are treated.
I speak from personal experience, because my childhood and teenage years were filled with daily anti-gay ridicule from a half-dozen neighborhood bullies. To make matters worse, two of my most-feared harassers were part of my church youth group, which meant that, even at church, I didn't feel safe.
I didn't handle it well, and the fright I felt inside was often clearly visible for others to see, which only made the harassment more frequent - and more enjoyable to the ones inflicting the pain.
Sometimes, I must admit, I fantasized about revealing my taunters' identities to others, even telling their well-to-do parents about how rotten - and violent - their children really were. But to do so - among adults - meant to call attention to my perceived (and actual) gayness, something I'd been taught to hate, even in myself. I was ashamed to be the one singled out as the school's "faggot" and, more so, I was angry at myself for not having the ability to pass more effectively, to live more invisibly.
The older I got, the more I realized that school-yard violence is actually the symptomatic extension of carefully-taught hatreds and biases passed down through generations.
On Feb. 22, more than 500 mourners attended a public memorial service for little Larry King. They remembered his beautiful singing voice, his vivacious personality and his flamboyant personality. In reading and hearing about him, I found the courage to tell a piece of my own experience.
Even at age 41, I still carry within me the emotional baggage of that laughed-at gay child who still feels strangely awkward, at times, when I feel like I am the only non-straight person in the room. And yet I also claim those negative experiences as a fundamentally shaping force in my own call to Christian ministry. We each learn empathy in our own difficult ways.
Learn more about Lawrence King and the vigils being organized to honor his memory at rememberinglawrence.org.